Standing up for parliament: how non-elected officials represent parliament as an institution

In a new Political Studies article David Judge and Cristina Leston-Bandeira identify non-elected officials rather than elected members as those who ‘speak for’ and ‘act for’ parliaments as institutions most often. In this post, originally posted on The Constitution Unit, they discuss this paradox and some of their key findings in relation to the UK parliament.

‘Unless someone stood up for parliament as an entity we might lose it. It wouldn’t be seen as precious’. (senior parliamentary official).

Are parliamentarians necessarily the best people to represent parliaments as institutions? To take the Westminster parliament as one example some of its members, such as Lord Norton, undoubtedly want MPs to ‘promote vigorously the institution of which they are members’. Others, however, such as Mhairi Black are only too eager to claim, repeatedly, that Westminster is ‘a totally defunct institution’. Still others, like Nick Clegg or Andy Burnham, before leaving the Commons in 2017, have willingly invoked the term ‘the Westminster bubble’ to denote a pathological institutional remoteness and disconnect from the public.

The fundamental question is: why would we expect parliamentarians to represent the institution of parliament, and what would they be representing anyway? Certainly, democratic linkage – of how parliaments engage with and inform citizens – has been of increasing concern for academics and parliaments alike. Yet, there has been relatively little attention paid to what is being communicated to citizens about parliaments and upon the nature of the parliamentary institutions that citizens are expected to engage with. This is the neglected institutional dimension of parliamentary representation: the representation of what parliaments ‘are’, what claims are made on their behalf and who the makers of these claims are. This second dimension is the focus of our recent article in Political Studies and we outline here some of the basic argument and key findings in relation to the UK parliament at Westminster. Our wider study examines claim-based notions of representation using interview data from 39 key actors in the Scottish, Westminster and European parliaments.

In terms of who is doing the representing, it is relatively easy to identify why MPs might not be the primary actors in representing the institution of parliament. Paradoxically, elected representatives, who are the prime makers of electoral representative claims, are at best tangential makers of institutional representative claims. In essence, MPs operating within the frame of electoral politics make a first-dimensional ‘person-to-person’ set of claims. In this dimension, the elected representative makes a claim to represent – to act for, speak for, or stand for – the represented, whether as individual voters or groups of individuals (most notably as members of geographical constituencies, political parties, or nations and/or states). And, equally the same representatives may also serve, as part of a two-way process, to represent the constructed claims – especially of parliamentary party, government or even the state itself – back to the represented. In this process elected representatives may be identified as the makers of claims about their parties or about governments (supportive or otherwise) or about the nation and/or state, but only tangentially about parliament as an institution. Whereas the other collective forms have some existence beyond parliament, parliament itself does not have an institutional representational existence other than as the sum of disparate, often contradictory, other ‘first-dimension’ forms of representation.

In this sense, the Westminster parliament takes on a ‘hollowed-out’ representative institutional form: it is populated by MPs – active person-to-person representative claim-makers – who do not primarily stand for, or necessarily make positive claims on behalf of, the institution itself. Yet, in times of decreased levels of citizen trust in parliamentary representatives, widespread public dissatisfaction with the competence of parliaments, and when the role of established parliamentary institutions has become subject to reappraisal and hence to contestation, then the requirement for institutional representation, for claims to be made about and on behalf of parliaments themselves, has become ever more pressing. In these circumstances, as one of us has pointed out, public engagement strategies have come to be elevated in the corporate priorities of the UK parliament. These are not simply educational or informational strategies. They are, more significantly, institutional representational strategies.

The basic contention of our article is that institutional claim-making has become largely the preserve of those insulated from the demands of person-to-person representation – either through the adoption by elected representatives of designated collective institutional roles such as the Speaker of the House of Commons, or by non-elected parliamentary officials. These institutional representational strategies shine through the interview responses of our sample of UK parliamentary officeholders and officials, a selection of which are listed here:

  • ‘Parliaments in my view are not the property of parliamentarians, they are not the preserve of politicians, they belong to the people out there and we must never forget that in what we do in terms of our outreach and the way we make information available’.
  • ‘It’s not our job to disseminate the work of members, … it would be inappropriate for us to do so. We’re here to promote awareness of the institution and the processes of the institution’.
  • ‘We don’t take the place of the relationship that members have with their constituents, but we rather work in a different space’.

Moreover, the different representational space occupied by non-elected officials allows claims – collective institutional claims – to be made beyond the immediate ‘person-to-person’ representational territory occupied by elected representatives:

  • ‘The whole goal … is to present the House of Commons as the central institution in our democracy’.
  • ‘[Our aim is to show that] parliament is a worthwhile institution, it’s something that should be valued and is relevant to people’s lives … we want people to realise that parliament is the heart of our democracy’.
  • ‘Unless someone stood up for parliament as an entity we might lose it. It wouldn’t be seen as precious. … now we have quite a clear appreciation that the image of parliament is very important. [And] implicit in that is an acceptance that the House has a personality, the House has a reputation that needs to be protected and built up. So, looking at how well respected the institution is, is now the number one thing on the list of what we are seeking to do’.

The MPs’ expenses crisis of 2009 made it especially difficult for MPs themselves to ‘stand up’ for parliament. Post-2009, MPs retreated even further from their already minimalist levels of claim-making on behalf of the institution of parliament. Yet, correspondingly, as one of our interviewees observed: ‘the expenses issue highlighted the fact that parliament needed to engage much more with the public and explain itself much more to the public’. In this institutional representative void the systematic expansion of the UK parliament’s outreach and educational services, with the explicit objective of spreading ‘awareness of the work, processes and relevance of the institution of parliament’ became of increased significance. Perhaps, therefore, the ultimate paradox of ‘institutional representation’ may well be that the people who ‘speak for’ (most loudly and most persistently) and ‘act for’ parliament as an institution are not primarily elected representatives but rather non-elected officials.

At a time when elected representatives are challenged by populist claim-makers, and confronted routinely by claims that are often intrinsically anti-parliamentary and anti-elitist (in a specific sense of the questioning of elected representatives and political establishments), the ‘institutional representation’ of parliament is not simply of concern for representative theory but, more fundamentally, is also of concern for representative democracy itself.

Notes

David Judge is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde.

Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds and a Constitution Unit Fellow. She tweets @estrangeirada.

This blog was originally posted on The Constitution Unit, and is republished with permission.

Read David Judge and Cristina Leston-Bandeira’s new article, ‘The Institutional Representation of Parliament’.

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